"Bewildered in Andalucia" by John Campbell
I am compelled by the bewilderment I see on the faces of British (indeed most) visitors to Andalucia to say something about the eating and drinking traditions in this unique and mostly unspoilt part of Europe.
Bewilderment is not confined to first time visitors. Many a time have I encountered regular visitors to the more tourist areas of the Andalucian coast, and even ex-pats from those British enclaves, complaining about everything from 'awful coffee' to inexplicable opening times of bars and restaurants in traditional Andalucian parts.
To understand the Andalucian way, you need to understand the Andalucian day. In this short, but hopefully illuminating piece, I focus on the Antequera area. The reason will be obvious to those who consult a map of Andalucia: Antequera is the epicentre.
Andalucians go to bed late and rise early.
So the first indulgence of the day is designed to jolt the Andalucian back to life. It is taken at a local bar/cafeteria on the way to work, around 6am to 8am in the morning. A stiff café solo (espresso) with a little cake such as an ensaimada (pastry covered in icing sugar). For those requiring more of a shock than a jolt back to life, a large brandy or manzanilla (a dry sherry - not to be confused with the camomile tea of the same name) is substituted for the ensaimada; and no frowns of disapproval from the camarero (barman/waiter). Mostly this first indulgence is taken standing or sitting at the bar.
Then it's off to work for a couple of hours.
At 10am it's desayuno. Most visitors understand that this means breakfast. But this brings the first of the misconceptions about Andalucian eating. Bread, in the French baguette sense, does not feature. In Andalucia, bread is something you get with lunch or dinner, not with breakfast.
Secondly, breakfast is invariably hot. Churros (deep fried strands of doughnut dough) are popular, dipped in a coffee or hot chocolate. Alternatively, ask for extra azucar (sugar) to sprinkle over the freshly fried churros. But most popular is the Mollete de Antequera (pronounced 'moyete' as in 'yeti'), not only in Antequera but all of Andalucia. The mollete is a flat bread which is toasted then spread with one of a variety of Andalucian specialities. Most common is virgin olive oil, garlic and freshly chopped tomato. But do try the various pate type pastes such as chicharrones or sobrasada. For the less adventurous there is always a mixto (ham and cheese) or mermelada (jam).
Ordering Coffee: It's NOT Café con Leche
This brings me to coffee, a consistent gripe of visitors to Andalucia. Most think that ordering a café con leche gets you a coffee with milk, and that’s it. Not so! What you actually get is a mitad, literally a 'half'; half café solo (espresso) and half milk. Granted, some of the camareros in the British enclaves now realise that a mitad is too strong for the British and have adjusted. Not so in the Spanish areas of Andalucia. So it is essential to understand that the Andalucians have a different name for even the slightest variation in the coffee to milk ratio. The names I give are peculiar to Malaga Province. Others, such as Cordoba, have slightly different names. Here we go:
A nube is a small dash of coffee topped up with hot frothed milk. It literally means a cloud; in other words a slightly clouded milk.
A sombra, literally shadow, has a dash more coffee topped with hot milk. Your milk has a 'shade' of coffee.
To get another dash of coffee ask for a corto. If not strong enough, go for the semi corto, one more dash.
Next comes the poor old maligned mitad, the result of ordering a café con leche.
If you like your coffee stronger, but a café solo is just too strong, ask for a semi largo, or for a coffee with just a dash of milk go for the largo.
But for that first jolt in the morning nothing beats a café solo.
Desayuno does not usually involve the hard stuff, except for those who need a second dose of the shock treatment. Cerveza (beer), usually in a bottle, is more common.
Desayuno lasts between half to one hour, but is served from 10am to 12noon.
At this point I should mention one further matter which is often cited as 'off-putting' by visitors. It applies to all bars/cafeterias at all times of the day. Visitors will often poke their heads into a cafeteria and see loads of serviettes etc crumpled up on the floor all along the bar and conclude that the place is 'dirty'. RELAX! In Andalucia, as in most of Spain, that is what is done. Rather than having dirty serviettes piling up on the bar, they are thrown on the floor. So if you see a bar at 11.30, then again at 12.30, you will see first what appears to be a 'dirty' floor, then an hour later a spotless floor. The reason is that a thorough cleaning takes place between eating shifts.
That brings me to the next 'shift': tapas.
Although you will invariably be offered a tapa if you have a beer at any time of day, it will usually be a cold tapa such as queso (cheese) or jamon (ham). Tapas gets under way at about 1pm, and goes on to about 3pm, when of course it's lunch time. This is not the place for a discourse on the delicious tapas in Antequera, in my view the best in Spain, so I'll try to stick to the essentials of defeating bewilderment.
The first thing to understand is that Andalucians are puzzled by the peculiar Northern European (and indeed American, Australian etc) 'custom' of drinking without eating, especially drinking in enormous quantities without eating. Hence the first point of note: drink small and eat small, before lunch and dinner that is.
Ordering a Beer
The word to use in a bar to trigger the response "tapa?" is caña (pronounced 'canya'), or more properly, caña de cerveza. A caña is a small beer (cerveza) generally taken with a small plate of food such as fried fish, paella, meatballs, prawns, pinchito (small type of Moorish kebab), grilled mushrooms or kidneys, and so on. The options are endless.
A caña is a little less than half a pint. If your thirst demands a little more ask for a tubo. A tubo comes in a straight glass, more like a half pint.
You do not need to order a beer to get tapa, any drink will do, as long as it is tapas time of day.
Pints' of beer are not a familiar concept in Andalucia, except in the foreign enclaves. Regrettably, I do see foreigners ordering jarras of cerveza per person. The Andalucians are a pragmatic and adaptable people so the concept of the 'pint' is intruding, but in traditional areas less so. The jarra, so often ordered as a drink for one person by the North Europeans, is what the Andalucians share between several people out together. But as I have said, the Andalucians are adaptable; the jarras for foreigners have had the pouring spouts removed.
But to the most important thing about tapas in the Comarca de Antequera: the price. In most of the surrounding villages a tapa is included in the price of a drink, usually about 1 Euro. In Antequera itself, the price of a caña with tapa varies from 1 to 1.30 Euros. A caña without tapa is usually between 90 cents to 1 Euro. You can also get extra tapas without ordering a drink, although the price again varies between 30 cents to 70 cents. In the villages you can also get tapas without a drink, again for a small extra price.
One final point on tapas: it is often the most inconspicuous bars, without a tapas 'display' on the bar, that do the very best tapas. Do not be put off by décor. If the tapas is good, and it's tapas time of day, the place will be busy. The most popular tapas bars with the Spanish are the family run bars: Papa tending the bar; Mama tending the cocina (kitchen).
Alas, one good thing must give way to another: it's 3 in the afternoon. Tapas is over. Time for lunch. In Andalucia lunch is almuerzo. You can get lunch earlier, from about 1pm in most cafeteria and tapas bars, but for the real thing, most restaurants start serving from about 2 to 3pm.
If you opt for the 'bar lunch', the Andalucian way is to order raciones or medias raciones of several different dishes and everyone then nibbles (picar) from the various plates. A typical combination will be half rations of grilled gambas (prawns) or langostinos (larger prawns), fried fish (rosada or mero), clams in garlic sauce (almejas al ajillo), fried calamares, jamon serrano, or if you're feeling 'flush', jamon iberico (which melts in your mouth). And that brings me to the next difficulty foreigners have in Spain: cheese.
Some of the more pretentious (ie expensive) restaurants, usually specialising in 'International Cuisine', will have an after dinner cheese trolley, as in Britain or France. That is not the Andalucian way, although I have seen foreigners asking for Spanish cheese after lunch or dinner, much to the amazement, and amusement, of the camareros.
Cheese is for tapas, or eaten as a starter. Spanish cheese is savoury, often served in olive oil. It is delicious with a beer or sherry or tinto (a red wine), but before lunch or dinner.
The variety of cheeses is for another time, but do explore them; you will be pleased you did.
One final note on lunch. In Summer start with a Tinto de Verano, a refreshing red wine based drink (the traditional Andalucian Summer drink which has been 'adapted' in other areas for tourists and called Sangria). Then try a Carpe Diem, or any one of the many Spanish desert wines, with your postre (desert). It is a delicious sweet Andalucian wine, also drunk as an aperitif.
Lunch over (and, time permitting, a short siesta), and its 5pm: time for merienda. The British equivalent is afternoon tea, except in Andalucia it's coffee and cakes rather than tea and scones. But do not forget how to order your coffee to enjoy merienda. Also, adjust your coffee to complement your cake. For example, if you're having a rich cake, take a nube. A good contrast to a light creamy cake would be a largo or semi largo.
If you do not linger too long over merienda (if you've made it that far), you should have a little time to do some shopping before the second tapas sitting of the day. In Winter this starts about 7 in the evening. In the summer it's nearer 8pm, sometimes a little later. The 'rules' for the second sitting are the same as for the first.
In Andalucian towns and villages, you will see many people wandering around the parks, plazas (squares) and streets between about 9 and 11 in the evening: old people, children, families with babies in push chairs, the whole gamut of society. Apart from enjoying the cool of the Andalucian evenings, I see this routine as a warm up for the main event: dinner.
Cena (with the 'C' pronounced 'th'), dinner, does not start before dark for Andalucians, although, more and more, provision is being made for the less food-hardy foreigners. But you're in Andalucia, so go with the flow.
The Andalucian day will then finish with a coffee and cognac or whisky, then a slow stroll home.
All the Andalucians I know stick to this feeding pattern fairly religiously. Some do so by taking certain 'meals' at home and others in one of the many bars or restaurants that every Andalucian town and village has in abundance. Others take most or all their 'meals' out. But en Fin de Semana (on the week-end), the Andalucians like to take their meals and tapas out.
Dinner is big on Friday and Saturday night, while Sunday is most popular for that long lunch with the extended family or a group of friends.
But most important of all, there is nowhere Andalucian that does not welcome children. Anywhere that seeks to restrict or refuse entry to children is not Andalucian. The places where children are not allowed by law, for example establishments for gambling, are places that no right-thinking parent would want to take their children anyway.
And do not distress yourself if baby cries, or the children walk around the bar or restaurant; the Andalucians are more likely to chat to them than frown. I was recently in one of the best restaurants in Antequera for Sunday lunch when an extended Andalucian family came in. They set down two children's tricycles on the floor, and the children started riding around the restaurant, the camareros dodging past them.
No one turned a hair, and within a minute they were simply 'invisible', just part of the celebratory atmosphere that permeates places Andalucian.
Rememder this Andalucian phrase, tranquilo hombre! (literally, relax man), follow the guidance, and you will find that there is no better place in the world to enjoy a thoroughly relaxing holiday among the most hospitable people you could ever hope to meet.
Get it wrong, and you will be one of those bewildered, perspiring, anxious, tomato faced people I see walking past the window mid-afternoon as I sip at my cold Peñascal Rosado (Spanish Rosé wine) over a plate of grilled langostinos.
One word of CAUTION: the Andalucians have been doing this for centuries. You're a novice, so begin by making a note of when things happen, and a few words and phrases, then start training by taking say a desayuno and mid-day tapas before lunch. After a few days dedicated perseverance you should be ready. Get up early, take a deep breath, then go for the big one, the marathon, a full Andalucian day. And salud!
DISCLAIMER: the writer can not take responsibility for the effects the diet prescribed by the Andalucian Day may have on those with a weak constitution or the figure conscious. If in doubt, consult your medical practitioner.
Copyright © John Campbell 2003 All rights reserved.